Sudden U-turn suggests Mary Lou McDonald is not in driving seat

Sinn Féin leader’s about-face on Border poll issue has whiff of old republicanism about it

When “you’re explaining you’re losing” is a Ronald Reagan phrase Sinn Féin president Mary Lou McDonald will be familiar with, and in recent days she has been doing some explaining.

After her interview with David Young of the Press Association on Monday, and after her subsequent and apparent "rowing back" remarks at Leinster House on Tuesday, she went on BBC Radio Ulster's Good Morning Ulster programme on Wednesday in an attempt at further elucidation.

Seasoned presenter Noel Thompson prompted a laugh from McDonald when he said to her that “unionist nostrils are filled with the smell of burning rubber in the wake of what they see as your sharp handbrake turn on the unity referendum”.

But no, like Margaret Thatcher before her, this lady was not for turning, effectively was McDonald’s line to Thompson on the unification plebiscite.


“I want a Border poll and I want it to happen soon,” she said.

That appeared at variance with what she told the Press Association. Her position on Monday, it seemed very clear, was that a unity referendum amid all the turbulence of Brexit would be unwise. And that was comforting to those who think that at some stage Northern Ireland will pull itself from the current political morass.

But, said McDonald to Thompson, “My comments were not about delaying a poll.”

After listening to the BBC interview, DUP leader Arlene Foster said she suspected that the Sinn Féin president had been got at. In making her "U-turn", said Foster, McDonald was "obeying orders from others in her leadership".

“She was obviously told by others in leadership in the party that she needed to talk up the possibility of a Border poll now,” added Foster.

Sinn Féin reject any such claims, of course, but these past few days McDonald has been less than sure-footed on a key and highly sensitive issue.

Apparent wobble

The Ulster Unionist Party also took advantage of this apparent wobble. Party chief whip Steve Aiken said McDonald and Sinn Féin were "all over the place when it comes to when they want a Border poll and why".

Sinn Féin could talk about a Border poll, but it was “clear that Sinn Féin don’t have a plan and, or, a case to make”, he said.

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood, also applying the burning rubber metaphor, warned that "McDonald's handbrake turn on the premature calling of a Border poll on the near side of Brexit is yet another indication of the party's infantile handling of the issue".

“It is disappointing to see Sinn Féin move away from this welcomed approach a mere 24 hours later,” he added.

Taking in Brexit and political paralysis, there was initial relief – certainly outside the Sinn Féin base – that on Monday McDonald appeared to be acknowledging that Northern Ireland has more than enough problems to contend with without the added incendiary burden of calls for an imminent Border poll.

But putting resolving Brexit above the great republican goal of a united Ireland may have been a step too far for some senior republicans.

In particular, some republicans would have felt that McDonald should have exploited the former DUP leader Peter Robinson's controversial comments at the MacGill Summer School in Glenties.

If Robinson was prepared to say that while he didn’t foresee a united Ireland, failing to prepare for one would be madness, then republicans would have thought here was a ready (and unionist) prepared opportunity to press the Border poll agenda. And perhaps that is why she did, as Foster said, row back on her earlier position.

Played a blinder

The general consensus is that McDonald has played a blinder since taking over as president from Gerry Adams. The gesture in Derry, for instance, of using the term "Londonderry" was viewed as reaching out to unionism early into her tenure and signalling a different language and style to her predecessor.

But first softening and then within less than 24 hours re-firming her stance on the issue that most spooks unionism will be viewed in unionist and other political quarters as Sinn Féin and its new leader retreating to old, hard, fixed positions.

Dublin and London would have welcomed Monday's line on Brexit. It certainly accorded with the stated position of Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney that, in the face of the storms of Brexit, it is better to remain calm on the issue of a united Ireland.

Well-placed Northern sources contacted on Wednesday noted with some dejection what they saw as a definite rubber-burning U-turn by McDonald. “Her comments on Monday about putting a Border poll on hold were viewed as brave and refreshing, that Mary Lou was saying I am a different type of Sinn Féin leader, that I am my own woman, and that was good to see,” said one dispassionate Northern observer.

“But by Tuesday,” the source added, “it was clear that others in the leadership saw her as going too far. And they hauled her back. And that was very sad to see.”